Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?
Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?
--Florence Reece, 1931*
There are sides in history--although the powers that be will always deny it. And if they cannot deny it, they can at least minimize it, trivialize it, dissolve it into a mass of muddled details... or so they seem to think. We've seen this once again this week.
Following Bill Halter's narrow loss to Blanche Lincoln in the run-off Tuesday, Glenn Greenwald wrote a scathing analysis, the bare bones of which ran roughly thus:
The run-off between Democratic Senate incumbent Blanche Lincoln and challenger Bill Halter, which culminated on Tuesday night in Lincoln's narrow victory, brightly illuminates what the Democratic Party establishment is.... Obama loyalists constantly point to the Blanche Lincolns of the world to justify why the Party scorns the values of their voters: Obama can't do anything about these bad Democratic Senators; it's not his fault if he doesn't have the votes, they insist.
So what did the Democratic Party establishment do when a Senator who allegedly impedes their agenda faced a primary challenger who would be more supportive of that agenda? They engaged in full-scale efforts to support Blanche Lincoln....
Ordinarily, when Party leaders support horrible incumbents in primaries, they use the "electability" excuse.... That excuse is clearly unavailable here. As Public Policy Polling explained yesterday, Lincoln has virtually no chance of winning in November against GOP challenger John Boozman....
What happened in this race also gives the lie to the insufferable excuse we've been hearing for the last 18 months from countlessObamadefenders: namely, if the Senate doesn't have 60 votes to pass good legislation, it's not Obama's fault because he has no leverage over these conservative Senators. It was always obvious what an absurd joke that claim was; the very idea of The Impotent, Helpless President, presiding over a vast government and party apparatus, was laughable. But now, in light of Arkansas, nobody should ever be willing to utter that again with a straight face. Back when Lincoln was threatening to filibuster health care if it included a public option, the White House could obviously have said to her: if you don't support a public option, not only will we not support your re-election bid, but we'll support a primary challenger against you. Obama's support for Lincoln did not merely help; it was arguably decisive....
In form all Presidents are leaders nowadays. In fact this guarantees no more than that they will be clerks. [Emphasis added.] Everybody now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything...But such acceptance does not signify that all the rest of government is at his feet. It merely signifies that other men have found it practically impossible to do their jobs without assurance of initiatives from him. Service for themselves, not power for the President, has brought them to accept his leadership in form...A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk. His services are in demand all over Washington. His influence, however, is a very different matter.
This is, it should be said, less true on foreign policy than on domestic policy. But on domestic policy, it's quite true. If you could convince Barack Obama that the economy desperately needed $400 billion more in immediate stimulus, there's just not that much he could do about it. He doesn't have the votes, and like all presidents before him, he doesn't have a irresistible powers or tools of persuasion he can use to get the votes. Our system is based around Congress even if our storytelling is based around the president.
Now, clearly no one doubts that presidents' powers are constrained. Dick Cheney wanted the powers of an emperor--and even those powers are constrained. But the president no more than a clerk? Sure it's nice to quote authoritative texts. But it's nicer when you don't expose them to ridicule in the process. Neustadt's original intent may not have been ridiculous, but this use of him renders him so.
Now, I do concede that Glenn's post might have been simplistic. A 46-page analysis of the power dynamics at play in the public option struggle would no doubt provide more nuance. Here's how Bernstein does nuance:
So a clever and hard-working president can get some -- some! -- of the things he wants. As Matt Yglesias notes, all the pressure in the world on Blanche Lincoln wasn't going to make much of a difference when it came to health care reform. That's because she wasn't the 60th vote -- in fact, she and Mary Landrieu were probably votes numbers 56 and 57, something like that. More to the point, on the public option (which is presumably Greenwald's complaint, since as he might recall the actual, landmark health care bill did, as a matter of historic record, actually pass), well, the public option only had somewhere around 51, 52, or 53 votes in the Senate. Oh, and that's for a very weak public option, something that the actual policy experts believed was largely inconsequential.
But this only shows that Lincoln wasn't the only problem, and we already knew that. That's just the point: the problem wasn't Lincoln. It was Obama. This is Greenwald's nuance: His fundamental point was not about what Obama could achieve. It was about what he was willing to fight for--and against. In the linked-to Yglesias post, Matt unconsciously condemns his own misreading of Jeff's Left Ed diary last Sunday (see my quick hit, "Yglesias vs. Yglesias"), but he also has this to say:
What I wrote, in August of 2009, was that "To get sixty votes you need Ben Nelson or Olympia Snowe to back your bill. Neither Nelson nor Snowe is especially liberal, and the President doesn't have a great deal of leverage over either of them."
Let's set Nelson aside for the moment, and look at Snowe. If it's true that Obama didn't have much leverage over her, then he had no one to blame but himself for that situation. When Snowe and Collins were holding out against the stimulus, Obama could easily have won them over by simply organizing a few town halls in the great state of Maine with teachers, parents, schoolkids, principals, etc., driving home the point that Snowe and Collins were endangering schoolkids everywhere. Their images as reasonable, moderate centrists could not have survived a sustained onslaught of this sort, and they were probably smart enough to realize it long before it got ugly. Once such lesson goes a long way with Senators concerned about their images. Had Obama demonstrated such a well-honed, fine-tuned fighting spirit early on--balanced by graciousness in victory, of course--he would never have gotten himself into such difficulties with healthcare...assuming, of course, that they were difficulties for him, rather than a form of cover.
Similarly, Obama never even seemed to dream of making the filibuster abuse an issue, so that he wouldn't need to win 60 votes just to sneeze. He could easily have made it a major political rallying point, and beaten up mercilessly on any opposition. The window for doing that is long gone now, of course. But in the first few months of his presidency he was ideally situated to fight and win such a major strategic battle. But this was simply not his priority. Majority rule was not his priority. Government working for the people was not his priority. And this is what Greenwald's post was ultimately all about: priorities.
Of course no president gets everything they want. There are things beyond their power that prevent that. But what they do get is dependent on two things within their power: Their priorities, and their willingness to fight for those priorities. And the situation with Blanche Lincoln is deeply illustrative of both, regardless of whether Obama could have prevailed.
The question, ultimately, is not whether Obama could have won. He himself said many times that change is hard. We all know that. The question, rather, is whether he would struggle. And, of course, the ultimate question: Which side is he on?
* Florence Reese wrote "Which Side Are You On" after a terrorist night raid on her home by deputies employed by the mining company. She wrote the lyrics on the back of a kitchen calendar.